MUSCATINE — The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors approved Muscatine attorney James Barry as the interim county attorney Monday morning despite knowing he's previously been removed as county attorney of Cass County and had his law license suspended, and despite a strong warning from the local bar association.
The supervisors unanimously approved retaining Barry through the general election scheduled for Nov. 3 after committee members assured the board Barry had learned from his “mistakes” of the past. Supervisor Nathan Mather, a member of the search committee, said Barry was the only applicant and that the county would have to start the whole process over if the position isn’t filled by Wednesday.
“Mr. Barry has a significant amount of experience as a county attorney,” Mather said. “We feel he has all the skills, knowledge and experience to perform the task. Mr. Barry will be the first to tell you that there are some red flags in his past, like when he was Cass County attorney he was removed for some misconduct that took place with regard to the sheriff and some law enforcement operations there. He was also disciplined by the Iowa Supreme Court with the suspension of his license for 12 months in 2009. The committee carefully reviewed each of the disciplinary actions against Mr. Barry, spoke to the references he provided and references he didn’t provide. Everyone I spoke with including his current employer said the man has completely changed. Two people used the phrase that he was the most honest man they know.”
In 2004 District Judge Robert Hutchinson ordered Barry, then the Cass County attorney, and Cass County Sheriff Larry Jones to leave office, ruling they had committed “willful misconduct and maladministration in office.” The ruling came as a result of hearings into allegations by seven citizens. Among other things, they were accused of reducing traffic court sentences in exchange for cash payments to the sheriff’s department drug fund and using the money, which should have gone to the state treasury, for questionable expenses. Another allegation is that guns which were confiscated and should have been destroyed were given to Barry for personal use. When the improper use of guns became public, Barry returned 15 guns to a deputy.
In 2009 Barry’s license to practice law was suspended for 12 months for violating numerous provisions of the Iowa Code of Professional Responsibility for Lawyers for the incidents as Cass County attorney. In the ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court stated Barry’s actions had not only violated the rules, but had brought the entire system of justice into disrepute. The court also states the public’s perception was that Barry had operated the county attorney’s office as though justice was for sale.
Supervisor Santos Saucedo, also on the committee, said that in speaking with references he thinks Barry had reformed and is an acceptable choice for the position. Supervisor Scott Sauer commented that “hiccups in his past” should not keep him from moving forward. Supervisor Doug Holliday said he had some concerns, but they had been satisfied.
Muscatine County Sheriff’s Department chief deputy Ardyth Slight had also served on the committee and did not support the recommendation.
Supervisor candidates Ed Askew and Henry Marquard both objected to the appointment, citing the record. Mather commented that the committee is aware of disciplinary action taken against Barry.
Attorney Liz Araguas, speaking on behalf of the Muscatine County Bar Association, warned the board that appointing Barry was dangerous for the county. She said the county advertised for applicants in area papers but no one had contacted the bar association directly, while she said this conformed to the letter of the law, it is not the most effective way of performing the search. She said the bar association was notified Sunday evening the appointment would be made Monday.
“The stand that this is the only interested applicant I don’t think is accurate,” she said. “I think there are other interested applicants in the bar who haven’t had sufficient time to think about this.”
She said Muscatine County is in the process of “cleaning up some messes,” including the removal of jail administrator Dean Naylor. She said any mistakes Barry makes in the role of county attorney would blow right back on the board of supervisors.
“The malfeasance committed by Mr. Barry was not a hiccup, it was years of deliberate fraud,” she said. “Six months with him as your county attorney is very dangerous and it is not your only option.”
Barry was not at the virtual meeting to answer questions. Kris Lee, a colleague of Barry’s was on the line and assured the board Barry is a “changed man.” Lee said he is not reckless or dishonest. She said he is honest, fair and hard-working.
In early April, County Attorney Alan Ostergren announced he was leaving his position to pursue other opportunities. Since his last day on May 1, the chief assistant county attorney had been in charge of the office. The office has four attorneys, however one has already resigned and is leaving soon.
The supervisors also unanimously agreed to retain Ostergren as a consultant at a pay rate of $4,000 per month. Askew objected to the agreement, saying if Barry is as good as was presented, the county should have no need for Ostergren’s services.
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